With 40 years of experience working and running his $300 million Japanese computing goods supply company, Tetsuya Yamada, president of Sanwa Supply Inc., felt something missing in his business knowledge when he noticed an article in the Economist magazine last May that mentioned the new Advanced Leadership Program for Asian-American Executives, also known as ALP, offered by the Executive Education program at Stanford Graduate School of Business.
ALP was created in 2010, as a first-of-its kind executive education program aimed at Asian and Asian American executives working in U.S.-based global companies. The six-day program, offered annually during the summer to approximately 50 participants, utilizes a mix of classroom lectures, external executive sessions, and experiential activities, as well as opportunities to foster networks and connections over meals and during evening activities.
The program was designed to address the “bamboo ceiling,” which refers to the impediments to career advancement faced by Asian and Asian-American executives despite their strong representation among professional ranks. Leveraging Stanford GSB senior faculty with expertise in such topics as Building Power & Influence: Personal Strategies, Creating and Claiming Value in Strategic Negotiations, and Collaborative Leadership Through Feedback, the program’s participants are encouraged to break cultural norms and molds, and invest in finding their unique voice in leadership.
Although not fluent in English, Yamada-san, or Mr. Yamada, wanted an opportunity to study at Stanford GSB and participate in the program. Through a translator, he reached out to the architects of the program, Wesley Hom, a retired executive from IBM, and Buck Gee, formerly of Cisco.
Both Gee and Hom were concerned about Yamada-san’s language barrier and the Japanese culture, especially given the experiential learning and participatory nature of the program. Participants in the program are carefully selected to ensure a cohesive group with diverse experiences to draw from. International students make up 1–2% of the cohort each year.
“We wanted him to get something from it; we wanted it to be valuable,” said Gee. “To spend time and money here, we wanted him to be sure it was worth his time.”
Yamada-san has deep, resourceful business roots in Japan. His parents were in the textile business and made uniforms for the Japanese army in World War II. When that business dissolved at the conclusion of the war, they started a grocery store that evolved into a packaging store. Eventually, Yamada-san took over the business and turned it into an operation that sells packaging and electronics to distributors, a kind of business-to-business cross between Best Buy and Staples.
Buoyed by the confidence that his longtime business development associate, Reiko Emmi-Elkins, would serve as an in-class translator, Yamada-san assured Hom and Gee that it would not be a waste of time, and explained that his attendance was something on his “bucket list.” He was hoping to bring leadership principles back to his company so that he could inspire his sons, who work with him, to become more engaged and primed to take over executive management of his company in the future.
Although his wife of 40 years had discouraged him from attending, warning him to be careful with his optimism and ambition, he was undeterred. “There is a traditional saying in Japanese,” Emmi-Elkins said on a recent trip back to campus with Yamada-san. “That translates into … if you go beyond your capabilities, it is too much risk and you won’t survive.”
Still, he persevered and applied and was thrilled to head to Stanford. But Yamada-san wasn’t sure his acceptance was official. Hom and Gee had set up a special pre-class briefing with him on the Saturday before the program started to help him prepare for the week, but Yamada-san had interpreted the early meeting as a final interview before he could attend ALP. When he arrived on Saturday, he was concerned he might not make the cut and would be sent back to Japan. He was relieved when he finally understood the purpose of the pre-class meeting.
Over the course of the program, with the help of Emmi-Elkins, he was able to retain the lessons imparted by faculty members Charles O’Reilly, Jeffrey Pfeffer, and Carole Robin, among others. An integral part of ALP is creating a personal action plan. As the week progresses, in between classroom discussions on topics including Harnessing Collective Intelligence and Building Global Brands: Brain-Based Customer Insights, participants meet in small teams to discuss how each could incorporate their learnings into their personal action plans.
For many executives, coming to Stanford to experience executive education provides a welcome break from the day-to-day grind of running a business; being removed from a work environment enables participants to literally and figuratively step outside and back to gain new perspective and glean insights that were impossible to see while immersed in conventional work.
Yamada-san said this was the single most impactful component: to be able to step away from his business, where spare time is impossible to find, and “each day is business-business-business,” Emmi-Elkins said. The time away from distractions enabled him to look at his vision and strategy, and, most importantly, focus on the action plan to execute.
The course component that resonated the most with him, he said, was the examination and discussion around a case study from Seungjin Whang: Tamago-Ya of Japan: Delivering Lunch Boxes to Your Work. Yamada-san was intrigued by the case study, and related it to his company: Both are not only based in Japan, but also family-owned, and face the challenges of demand forecasting, customer service, and supply and distribution planning.
Yamada-san said the participants and the diversity of their backgrounds also enriched the courses and social networking events. He was impressed and honored by other participants’ warmth and hospitality, and openness at accepting his contributions.
That openness, he feels, was also the key to the impact of the program. He recommends future participants fully open up to the process, especially if they come from differing cultures, and it will exceed their expectations.
“Stanford should be the best place for those who have a different background and different understanding to go to make a bridge to the culture,” Yamada-san said through Emmi-Elkins.
Yamada-san’s gratitude and recognition of the program’s impact was reflected through a generous donation towards the construction of Highland Hall, the new student residence currently under construction across from the Knight Management Center on Serra Street.
On a recent return trip to campus and tour of the construction site, Yamada-san was quick to smile and reflect on his experience. His two sons who work with him accompanied him on the trip, and let out knowing groans when he pulled out his ALP personal action plan to show Gee and Hom that he references it often.
Prior to his participation in the program, Yamada-san was reluctant to announce his future plans for the company and his sons’ involvement. In Japanese culture, yakudoshi is a belief that certain years carry bad luck, and especially for men between the ages of 38 and 42. His sons, Kazunori and Yuzo, are both within those ages and it should be a cautious time in their lives to be making career decisions. “You can’t wish too much or can’t push,” Yamada-san said through Emmi-Elkins. But inspired by the open, progressive nature of his fellow participants and the program, he felt differently when he returned home.
“After the Stanford [program], no worries, he just ordered them to officially let them know of that plan he has,” Emmi-Elkins said, which is that his son will succeed Yamada-san as the 4th generation owner of the company. Yamada-san’s intention in bringing his sons to the recent trip back to campus was to also inspire them to participate in the program. “He already told them you’d better go,” Emmi-Elkins said. Kazunori Yamada will attend the next ALP this summer.
By Heather Hansen